September 7, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

Hamlet (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

I have to wonder, in many ways, what is left to say about this production. Ever since the announcement, about a year ago, that David Tennant would be playing Hamlet in Gregory Doran’s new production of the play, the hype machine has been in full gear. Endless blogs, articles, debates, releases, the adoption of several new strict security measures in Stratford, extortionately overpriced resales on ebay…… and this was all before the production even opened. Press night was a while back, and everyone under the sun seems to have already reviewed it – even the West End Whingers made a rare excursion out of London. Frankly, I’d felt fairly sick and bored of the production for quite some time before I saw it on Friday night. Instead of a structured review, then, I’ll offer some thoughts.

It was, of course, excellent. In spite of the huge amount of pressure that had been heaped on Tennant’s back by the publicity (as if playing the Dane wasn’t enough), he gave a tour de force performance. In his first appearances he stood, almost catatonic, with a glass of champagne as Patrick Stewart’s Claudius held court. His grief physically weighed him down, his first soliloquy being delivered from a crouching position as he clutched at his head. Yet, once reunited with his father (hugging the Ghost, also played by Stewart, around the waist), he became motivated and manic. His ‘antic disposition’ took the form of a humour that bordered on callous, and often crossed over into offensive. In a shocking moment, to enrage Laertes, he gyrated over Ophelia’s open grave, an act which was in keeping with the character he was presenting to the court, but also heartbreaking in light of his own grief. Tennant’s wide eyes drank in everything they saw; he drew his power from his observations, which in turn informed his actions. Hamlet was able to make a joke out of anything; even while tied to a swivel chair in order to answer Claudius’ questions about the location of Polonius’ body, he was able to cry "Whee!" as he was pushed offstage. His committment to his own ‘madness’ was pushed further than usual, putting the grand plan before everything.

Hamlet’s devotion was to family, which was made most apparent in the closet scene. After shooting Polonius (in an impressive bit of stage trickery which saw the enormous glass wall behind which he was hidden shattered by the bullet), the scene became an intimate and emotional conversation between Hamlet and Gertrude, through which Gertrude became complicit in his plans. Their intimate bond was strengthened by the arrival of Claudius’ ghost who, after reminding Hamlet of his purpose, saw Gertrude and softened. He sat beside her on the bed as she cradled Hamlet’s head, creating the family picture that Hamlet so clearly yearned for.

This was a solid Hamlet that, while playing things rather safely, offered several interesting readings and was simultaneously accessible to newcomers (much has been made of the production’s attraction to first-time Shakespeare-goers) and of interest to old hacks. A gorgeous set saw the mirrored wall from the RSC’s Dream remain intact, with the floor of the stage also a reflective surface that allowed for lovely lighting effects in the battlement scenes, the soldiers bouncing their torche beams off the floor. The costumes were modern; at court people wore tuxedos and ballgowns, in private t-shirts and jeans. The production’s greatest asset was its excellent cast, who were without exception a joy to watch from start to finish. Even minor roles – Mark Hadfield’s Gravedigger, Ryan Gage’s Osric, John Woodvine’s beautifully spoken Player King – stood out in a production that examined the human impact of events from everybody’s point of view.

To run through some of my random highlights:

  • A clever bit of cross-casting saw several of the Mechanicals from Dream become the Players of The Mousetrap. Ryan Gage, Flute in the former, once again played a woman as the Player Queen, and Roderick Smith, Quince in the former, once again delivered the prologue to the play-within-a-play.
  • Peter de Jersey (an interesting Horatio, the older scholar wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow-patches) wasn’t as prominent as other Horatios I’ve seen, but kept up a real sense of kinship with the Prince. In one very funny moment, as Hamlet talked about clouds with Polonius, Horatio cried with laughter at his friend’s teasing.
  • A believable connection was made early on between Gertrude and Ophelia, which turned their relationship into an interesting side story. On hearing of Ophelia and Hamlet’s mutual interest, Gertrude set herself up as a mother figure to Ophelia, beckoning her and adopting a gentle voice when talking to her. This connection became more poignant as Ophelia’s madness grew upon her. Ophelia sang and skipped in fast circles around the stage, but every time Gertrude advanced or tried to speak, Ophelia screamed until she backed away. Mariah Gayle’s performance in these scenes was excellent, creepy and moving. Gertrude’s news of her death was delivered emotionally, she as pained as Laertes. Edward Bennet’s Laertes was moving in his reception of the news, standing stock still and desperately trying not to cry, but shaking slightly as he restrained his grief.
  • Continuing with Gertrude (possibly the performance of the evening, a wonderful Penny Downie), the gradual isolation of the Queen from everyone else was significant. Her relationship with Claudius was equal at the start, and in many ways she was calmer and more in control than him (he had to keep asking her for clarification on matters such as which school Hamlet was at), but as the play went on he grew more distant. Gertrude was increasingly cut off from both husband and son, most prominently at the end of Ophelia’s funeral where she was ordered to take her son in hand and left alone on stage, even the courtiers turning from her. Her eventual suicide was knowing and deliberate, a final act of rebellion and solidarity with her son.
  • Oliver Ford Davies was an excellent Polonius, funniest in his rambling speeches where, rather than anunciate everything clearly, he instead rambled off into mumbling, his muddled thought processes being vocalised as he wittered away to himself and repeatedly lost his train of thought. Basically a lovable uncle figure, when he was shot there was an audible "Oh no" from the audience, an indicator of the affection he engendered in those around him.

The production, however, was let down in two places. The first took the shape of a decision I absolutely detested, which was to create an interval on a false cliffhanger, midway through the scene where Hamlet comes across the praying Claudius. As Hamlet declared "Now I’ll do it" and raised his dagger, the stage blacked out, and the scene resumed 20 minutes later with him changing his mind. Obviously done in order to create a cliffhanger ending, the obviously forced break served to break the fluidity of the scene. Crucially, it broke Claudius’ chain of reasoning – we heard his admissions of guilt and the breaking through of his conscience, but then had to wait half an hour for him to tell us that his prayers had not flown to heaven. Hamlet’s discourse on the theological implications of killing a sinner who is in a state of penance were artificially disconnected from the penitent thoughts that dramatically occasioned them – and while logical sense could be made, dramatically and thematically the break caused a rift in a tightly-plotted scene that is, in my opinion, one of the most breathtaking in the play. Here, split into two short parts, the scene was effectively killed.

The second moment that let the production down, far more subjective and personal, was that I simply felt the final scene was rushed. Duel and deaths followed each other in a manic rush of activity that felt too much like ‘wrapping up’, particularly after such a steadily-paced build up over the previous three and a half hours. The production’s final lines were Horatio’s goodbye to the prince, which would have made a fine if abrupt ending, but then an entrance opened for the silent arrival of Fortinbras, before whom Osric bowed. Too many loose ends seemed to be tied up too quickly – Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude and Claudius were up and bowing before we had barely had a chance to register their deaths, and then we also had to process Fortinbras’ ominous arrival. All of which would have been fine, if the pace hadn’t been so leisurely up until that point – why suddenly race for the finish?

I can’t say that I think this Hamlet will be a seminal production, despite its high profile. It was top-notch, with an excellent cast, and yet I felt that maybe it had outgrown itself slightly. In many ways, I preferred the Tobacco Factory’s far quieter and simpler production, which was less impressive but more coherent, more honest. However, my preferences can’t take away from the fact that this was one of the best (and most consistently) acted productions I’ve seen at the RSC, particularly in the main performances, and for that reason alone it justly deserves the praise and attention it has received. I’m extremely excited to see what the same team can do with Love’s Labour’s Lost when the spotlight is slightly off them.

Posted in Theatre review